The importance of being “ESR” – a sidelight on the G+ nym wars

This is not actually going to be a post about the G+ nym wars. Rather, it’s about something curious that I discovered while thinking about them.

I would like G+ to support persistent pseudonyms, so G+ users could say “+ESR” and have it point to my G+ profile. But here’s what’s interesting; I don’t actually want that capability because I want people to address me as “ESR” rather than my real name. I will cheerfully answer to either.

The reason I want a persistent alias as +ESR is more subtle. I want other people to be able to convey information about how they want to engage me by which label they choose. One might think of this as “aspect naming”, and it’s a slightly different phenomenon from pseudonymy or nicknaming, in a way I will explore in this essay.

I didn’t actually choose to be known as “ESR”. I do habitually use “esr” as a login name, but “ESR” is different; I got tagged that way by other people because hackers have a tradition of triletterizing people they consider tribal elders or chieftains. The best known other example is of course RMS = Richard M. Stallman, and I’m pretty sure I got triletterized on that model.

For completeness, I’ll note this is one of two conventions we use for marking tribal elders; the other is reference by plain first name, e.g. Linus = Linus Torvalds, Ken = Ken Thompson, Guido = Guido van Rossum. A sociolinguist might have an interesting time figuring out what the implicit rules are, and why some people who indisputably are tribal elders never get shortnamed.

Anyway, I accepted being use-named ESR after 1997 because I understood what it meant. Use of that handle was functional for the people who tagged me with it; it was and is part of a sort of social identity game in which, by addressing me that way, they perform a subtle affirmation of their own status as hackers and define the kind of interaction they are having with me.

I have friends who address me in different contexts as “Eric” or “ESR”, and it is quite predictable which context will elicit which behavior. A personal friend might write in a post visible to me “I was talking with ESR last week…” but would almost certainly say “Hey Eric, want some of this pizza?” in direct address. If I heard “Hey, ESR, want some of this pizza?” it would be from a random hacker who doesn’t know me very well and thus prefers to address me by tribal title of respect rather than personal name.

Conversely, I don’t expect (say) Tim O’Reilly to address or refer to me as ESR. He’s a friend and ally of the hacker culture (we’ve seldom had a better one!) but he doesn’t live inside it day-to-day and doesn’t use its forms of respect. He makes a particularly interesting contrasting case exactly because he’s so close to us.

So, where I’m going with this…it actually matters not to me in any status sense whether people address me by “ESR” or my personal name on G+ (or elsewhere). What does matter to me is that people have the option to do either, so they can use the option expressively and as a way of telling me (and themselves!) what social game we are in.

This isn’t exactly nicknaming in the normal sense, because nicknames usually convey informality rather than being loaded as signifiers of respect. Nor is it the kind of pseudonym that effectively takes over as the person’s working name, as for (say) “skud” = Kirrily Roberts. It’s more like the old-fashioned idea of a nom de guerre, except that there’s no element of concealment.

I’m calling this “aspect naming” by analogy to aspect programming. I’d like G+ to support it.

I also invite commenters to develop, if they can, a more complete theory of aspect naming among hackers. Why isn’t Larry Wall just “Larry”? He’s certainly prominent enough. Is there a discoverable rule explaining why Linus Torvalds is “Linus”, rather than “LBT”? I have some guesses, and I’m curious to see what others will come up with without hearing those.

95 thoughts on “The importance of being “ESR” – a sidelight on the G+ nym wars

  1. I expect a lot of it is the uniqueness of the name. There’s a lot of Erics and Richards and Larrys in the world, but not so many guys named Linus or Guido, so referring to them simply by their first name is relatively unambiguous.

    That may be different in other linguistic communities, of course, but we’re talking about a culture that’s pretty English-dominated, so presumably the bulk of the folks in your reference set are going to be native anglophones. Anyone know enough about foreign-language hacker culture to see if the nicknames change by language? Is Linus still Linus in Finland?

  2. I would say that “Larry” is just to common a name for that to work (unlike “Guido” or “Linus”), but “Ken” is just as common a name, so I guess that’s right out.

  3. “LBT” isn’t as easy to say quickly as either “ESR” or “RMS”. Or maybe I’m imagining things, but that’s the impression I get. (It probably doesn’t actually have much to do with speed of verbalization; it’s more about how the logical word formed by saying those letters is pronounced. “LBT” sounds awkward in a way that neither “ESR” nor “RMS” do.)

  4. I think Alsadius and Tom Dickson-Hunt are both right– it’s about increasing specificness and reducing syllable count. Think of it as data compression.

  5. How did the individuals in the three categories (initials, single name, full name) sign their messages? Given my experience in non-hacker subultures, I’m willing to bet it’s a combination of the name people give themselves and how well defined that name is. For example, rms and esr are prominent because you and Richard Stallman signed your messages that way and assumed those initials before someone else took them. Linus probably did not use his initials, but he is the most prominent Linus in the linux group so the term Linus is well defined in that context. Even if he signed with his full name, people would probably shorten it to just his name. Also are the people who do not get the shortened names as well known across the entire hacker culture as those with the shortened names. For example, everyone who knows about Linux knows about Linus, but would everyone who uses Linux know about Larry Wall?

    I’d also imagine there’s a limiting factor of how many initials and single names are useful as a mapping device before the construct becomes unwieldy. Two (esr and rms) are obviously not a problem, but would a subculture really be able to use 10 three letter initial terms?

    My guesses are based on my experiences with mushing, larping, sca (more as observer of friends than as part of the culture), and goth subcultures. None of these cultures used the three initial naming convention. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of correspondence there is with the hacker subculture naming conventions.

  6. I wonder if the 3 letter tradition dates back to 80s video games, when that was the choice for taking credit for a high score?

  7. ‘Why isn’t Larry Wall just “Larry”?’

    1) My impression is in the Perl community, he is “Larry” sometimes, but even there, not with the strength that Linus is Linus.

    2) Not sure if this is related or not, but on IRC he goes by “TimToady” (ie TMTOWTDI). I see him using that handle nearly every day.

  8. Eric, are there any ore examples of triletterized hackers ? I can only think of the two you already mentioned.

  9. None of these cultures used the three initial naming convention.

    Maybe it’s because in IT (and science, and engineering) TLAs (Three Letter Acronym) are very common. And popular.

  10. I have a related use case that might be better.

    Consider SCAdians and other groups where people take/get names that are utterly unlike their mindane names. I can imagine that folks like this would want to have a SCA circle on G+ where they are referred to as Lady X, Duke Y etc. and indeed where they are findable to other SCA members in that form.

    Right now there is no way that this can happen.

    But I would think it would be fairly easy to tag nicknames so that people could search and use nicknames of a particular sort so you’d see people doing posts with “Got this from +SCA:XXXyyy” to their SCA group and it would turn out correct.

    Indeed one could see the option to have a different ID/image used for different circles so the same person has 3 or more aliases: Joe Bloggs has the smart photo, JoeyB has the drunken image for his partying friends, Sir Joseph de Blogtonstadtpolisville has his SCA coat of arms etc. A post to all of his circles would thus appear different for the different circles.

  11. In some corporations/large organisations I am aware of, it is not uncommon for the more senior bods to refer to themselves (and be known to others by) their initials.

    I’ve come to think of this as partly status-driven (“I am too important for a mere first name!”) and at the same time a marker of familiarity (middle names aren’t usually used for addressing peers in conversation, so knowing a middle initial is somehow a little more intimate than a first name alone).

  12. Its not exclusive to hackers, and Americans should recognise these before Europeans and ANZACS. FDR and JFK.

  13. @kn re examples of triletterized hackers: dmr Dennis Ritchie, ast Andrew S. Tanenbaum. Guido is also listed as GvR in the Python PEP index.

    I think Alsadius is mostly correct, but the login names chosen by the individuals also have an influence, since the login names were and are visible as part of the email addresses, e.g., Guido is guido at python.org.

  14. LyleD raises a good point re: FDR and JFK (and I would add LBJ). Why did they get triletterized but not GWB or BHO or any other US Presidents?

    Others already brought up the uniqueness aspect, e.g., only one Linus, lots of Erics

    Others touched on how easily the initials roll off the tongue – ESR is easy to say; LBT, not so much.

    Oh, and LOL at Tommy’s comment.

  15. Pingback: The importance of being “ESR” – a sidelight on the G+ nym wars | #plusgate | Scoop.it

  16. “Why did they get triletterized but not GWB or BHO or any other US Presidents?”

    Were FDR and JFK contemporaneously initialized or was that done post facto? I’ve seen some GWB as a means of disambiguating him from GHWB, as well as some BHO. The latter is tricky, because the H is Not To Be Mentioned on some days, and To Be Celebrated on others. (We have always been at war with Eurasia.)

  17. Probably has a lot to with leadership styles. The “benevolent dictators” are ascribed a friendly, almost affectionate first name; humble leaders, a respectful full name. The leaders of movements need more formal (but abbreviated, since they’ll be frequently referenced) identifier – one that can also evoke a set of ideals/policies.

  18. What? No love for JWZ as an example here? “Jamie” would probably have been unambiguous, and it’s 2 syllables shorter than his initials.

  19. Joe Says:

    > I think Alsadius is mostly correct, but the login names chosen by the individuals also have an influence,
    > since the login names were and are visible as part of the email addresses, e.g., Guido is guido at python.org.

    I assume tchrist was also a login name

    https://www.socialtext.net/perl5/tchrist

  20. If the first name is too common they just get a last name: Knuth for Donald Knuth; Hofstadter for Douglas Hofstadter (though his best-known book gets tri-letter treatment: GEB)

  21. >Guido is also listed as GvR in the Python PEP index.

    That is true. I think this may have been an attempt to triletterize him that didn’t take, because “Guido” was too well established.

  22. One distinction just off the top of my head from the examples you mention is that those who are known for their technical contributions are known by their real names, whereas those known mainly or completely for philosophical leadership are initialised:

    Linus – huge technical contribution in Linux/Git
    Larry Wall – Java
    Ken – Unix/C
    Guido – python

    RMS – a crossover. Well known for Emacs and GCC but I would say he is probably even better known now for leading the FSF

    ESR – almost purely known for philosophical leadership and ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’

  23. One thing I’ve noticed is that the people who get/act/work from three letter acronyms are all (generally) over 45-50.

    They are also people who “got online” in a professional (or majority of their social time context) sometime before roughly 1992.

    Sometime after 1992, the number of people online grew to the point where adding more TLA-IDs resulted in A) name collisions and B) “Who the hell do you think you are, going with a three letter name, noob?”

    In the game authoring community, I can think of only a few initialisms.

    Steve Jackson is SJ
    Stephen Cole is SVC
    Steven Petrick is SPP.
    Sean K Reynolds is SKR

    I think part of this is attempting to brand yourself as a content producer.

  24. >Its not exclusive to hackers, and Americans should recognise these before Europeans and ANZACS. FDR and JFK.

    Interesting point. I wonder if “FDR” and “JFK” were the models for capitalizing “rms” into “RMS” in respectful usage. This seems likely to me.

  25. Jeff L says:

    > LyleD raises a good point re: FDR and JFK (and I would add LBJ). Why did they get triletterized but not GWB or BHO or any other US Presidents?

    Pertaining to Eric’s…um I mean esr’s question, we should also ask why are Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc. known by one name but not John Adams? And why did the three letter acronym people (TLA) get the TLA treatment? Interestingly enough, FDR, JFK, and LBJ can also be referred to as Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson with no loss of information. Just as I presume Raymond and Stallman can be used in the context of open source software.

    kn says:

    > Maybe it’s because in IT (and science, and engineering) TLAs (Three Letter Acronym) are very common. And popular.

    Is it still popular among the young folks? I’ve always been curious why TLA is popular in IT. In the subcultures I move, I’d be looked at just as weird if I tried to go by TLA as if I were to use a creative pseudonym in hacker culture.

    TomM says:

    >In some corporations/large organisations I am aware of, it is not uncommon for the more senior bods to refer to themselves (and be known to others by) their initials.

    Is the reason for the TLA popularity in those settings due to use of initials to sign corporate memos?

  26. >I wonder if the 3 letter tradition dates back to 80s video games, when that was the choice for taking credit for a high score?

    I don’t think so. I hadn’t been triletterized back then, but RMS and DMR already had been by 1981.

  27. Joe Presley> FDR, [...] can also be referred to as Roosevelt, [...] with no loss of information.

    I really don’t want to nitpick, but I’m Australian and I know this is wrong. There were 2 Presidents with the surname Roosevelt: Teddy and FDR.

    I guess it really comes down to popular usage, and there are no rules. In my workplace we have lots of homophone given names. There was an older female consultant who’s name sounded exactly like mine, and I was the only person that was allowed to call her ‘mini-me’. All others disambiguated us by calling me by my department, and her by her company.

  28. >One distinction just off the top of my head from the examples you mention is that those who are known for their technical contributions are known by their real names, whereas those known mainly or completely for philosophical leadership are initialised:

    I don’t think this is right. Two obvious counterexamples: DMR = Dennis M. Ritchie, and JWZ = Jamie Zawinski.

  29. >Sometime after 1992, the number of people online grew to the point where adding more TLA-IDs resulted in A) name collisions and B) “Who the hell do you think you are, going with a three letter name, noob?”

    From another angle, Ken is suggesting that triletterization among hackers isn’t just a form of respect, it has connotations of “this person is very old-school” or “this person was among the founders”.

    I think there may be something to this, and it’s interesting that it never occurred to me before.

  30. @esr

    >I don’t think this is right. Two obvious counterexamples: DMR = Dennis M. Ritchie, and JWZ = Jamie Zawinski.

    Yep, both good counterexamples. I think that perhaps there is no pattern here. The data do not support any strong correlations that I can see. If you look the the leaders in the hacker community broadly, most of them are just known by their real names, and if their first name is distinctive enough, by their first name only. Yes, ken is an exception.

    Among those who are known by initialisms, I can see no obvious commonality that is not also shared by a lot of leaders who are known by their real names.

  31. >The data do not support any strong correlations that I can see.

    I now think Ken Burnside may have one: time! (And the increasing probability of triletterization collisions as the hacker culture gets larger.)

    I guess it is possible that I was or will have been the last person to be triletterized. I know quite precisely when that happened; it was late 1997 or early 1998. Before then I might have locally been called “esr” but wasn’t globally “ESR”. And I can’t think of anyone to whom that’s happened since. Can anyone else think of more recent examples?

    It would be a little sad if I were the last, but given the collision problem it was inevitable that someone would be.

  32. @esr

    >Can anyone else think of more recent examples?

    Possibly Zawinski? Although I think he may have acquired his moniker around the same time you did. What about DHH (David Heinemeier Hansson)? I don’t know if you would strictly count him a ‘hacker’ as such though.

    I think you may be right that it was a fashion that has since died out, or is in the process of dying out. I don’t think the collision problem is genuine since there are so few people referred to by their initials. It’s not as if we are assigning a new initialism to every new prominent programmer who comes along.

  33. @esr

    >I now think Ken Burnside may have one: time!

    Also, I still don’t really think that this is a strong correlation, since there are so many leaders who became prominent before you became ‘ESR’ who are not known by initialisms.

    Becoming a leader at some time during the last century may be a necessary condition, but it is far from a sufficient one.

  34. Eric, the reason why I made that distinction is because while I had Internet access through the University of Alaska in 1988-1990, I couldn’t get an Internet account without pulling chicanery on a university until 1992, when I worked for an Arizona ISP (and it was our ISP that had the account for the original USENET Green Card Spam….)

    The difference between 1990 and 1992 was pretty substantial, if you’d taken a break from the net for those two years. Once commercial ISPs opened up, the “Internet By Geeks, For Geeks…” culture got drowned in the tsunami.

    For example, I know of very few people who regard IRC as a tolerable chat interface who aren’t a hacker or programmer of some stripe…and I was the official unofficial IRC admin at UAF in ’88. Hell, the interface of MU* are cleaner and easier to use and are only two years younger…

    IRC is a rocky tidepool where coelecanths can still feel secure. :)

  35. Re: FDR – I think his fifth cousin was known as “TR” earlier and there may have been a play off that, although I’m just speculating.

  36. >Possibly Zawinski? Although I think he may have acquired his moniker around the same time you did.

    Well before me, I think. IIRC, he was already JWZ in common reference in the late 1980s. Thinking about it, I think this may have been a consequence of the Emacs/XEmacs split. He was a very prominent Emacs developer before then.

  37. >What about DHH (David Heinemeier Hansson)? I don’t know if you would strictly count him a ‘hacker’ as such though.

    I guess not, since I don’t know who he is.

  38. @esr

    >I guess not, since I don’t know who he is.

    Ha! He’s the guy who created ‘Ruby on Rails’.

  39. He’s the creator of Ruby on Rails, and I don’t see what would possibly disqualify him as a hacker. Definitely a recent triletterization.

  40. @anonymous

    >What about pg, tb and rtm of yc?

    I have never actually heard any of those people referred to by their initials before, except *after* they have first been referenced with their full name in the same conversation.

  41. @Daniel Franke

    >He’s the creator of Ruby on Rails, and I don’t see what would possibly disqualify him as a hacker.

    He is definitely an outstanding programmer, and a leader in his area, which is web applications. I think ‘hacker’ denotes more than mere programming ability and leadership though. Nobody thinks Bill Gates is a hacker.

    I’m not saying DHH is *not* a hacker (it’s not for me to say) but I think he would have to be called a hacker by other hackers to be considered one. There is a unique culture and set of values within the hacker community that goes beyond just programming and open-source, and I’m not sure DHH really participates much in that.

  42. AFAIK, Trevor and Jessica are only TB and JL within a fairly close-knit group surrounding YC. But I’d definitely recognize PG and RTM in any context.

  43. Now, if DHH had created something sufficiently old school…

    http://www.coboloncogs.org/INDEX.HTM

    maybe he’d be remembered. If he’d done it early enough.

    I think Single Name Entity status is more a marker for whether you were prominent in the early days of the Internet, with some crossover. It was possible to become a Single Name Entity after 1992, but it became much more challenging, and there is a bit of “Are you a fellow Giant Contributor, or are you doing something nifty standing on their shoulders?” in whether or not you got the cognomen.

    Also, the culture has gotten larger and more widespread. I was part of the culture then, but I was certainly not prominent within it. (Though there is probably a 1993 vintage punchline that ends with “…at least you’re not that poor schmuck in Arizona trying to run an NNTP gateway on a 386 with 2 MB of RAM and an 18 MB hard drive…” that refers to me.)

  44. I’m a Perl hacker and I would always refer to Larry Wall as just “Larry” for what it’s worth. I think that’s fairly common in the Perl community, I’ve noticed it especially in London.pm (London Perl Mongers.) As you pointed out it definitely feels like a sign of respect.

    Of course this doesn’t just happen in the Perl community, I’ve heard sports personalities be referred to only by first name as a mark of respect. In fact in the Magic: the Gathering community you have exactly the same dichotomy as you have in the Perl community (I’m just now realising this!) – there is LSV (Luis Scott-Vargas), PVDDR (Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa), and then there’s Kai (Kai Budde), John (John Finkel.) It seems largely to be a generational thing – John and Kai were playing at their height in the ’90s whereas LSV and PVDDR are part of the 2000s and 2010s professional M:tG crowd.

  45. @Daniel Franke

    >But I’d definitely recognize PG and RTM in any context.

    I would definitely not consider ‘RTM’ a hacker, since – as far as I know – the thing he is best known for is the creation of a destructive worm.

  46. >He’s the creator of Ruby on Rails, and I don’t see what would possibly disqualify him as a hacker. Definitely a recent triletterization.

    OK. Definitely a hacker. I didn’t know his full name or that he’d been triletterized. Perhaps he does count as a more recent example, though I’m doubtful because I didn’t immediately recognize DHH.

  47. >I have never actually heard any of those people referred to by their initials before, except *after* they have first been referenced with their full name in the same conversation.

    I think you’re mostly right here. RTM may be a weak exception, though.

  48. I’d love to have “aspect naming” on social networks. I already have this as an issue on Facebook where I’m connected with many members of my State Guard battalion. In person it’s easy to establish which aspect we’re in–what we’re wearing and whether the conversation opens with “Hi, Karl” or “Good morning, Captain.” On FB it’s unclear and that puts a damper on conversations.

  49. LyleD says:

    >Joe Presley> FDR, [...] can also be referred to as Roosevelt, [...] with no loss of information.

    >I really don’t want to nitpick, but I’m Australian and I know this is wrong. There were 2 Presidents with the surname Roosevelt: Teddy and FDR.

    Absolutely, just like there was more than one prominent Kennedy in politics (Robert and Teddy). However in common american usage, if someone refers to “Roosevelt” as in “Roosevelt’s policies increased the role of government” people would know the speaker refers to Franklin Roosevelt even though both Roosevelts were big government advocates.

    I think this pertains to what Tom mentioned:

    > If you look the the leaders in the hacker community broadly, most of them are just known by their real names, and if their first name is distinctive enough, by their first name only.

  50. >In person it’s easy to establish which aspect we’re in–what we’re wearing and whether the conversation opens with “Hi, Karl” or “Good morning, Captain.”

    I don’t think this is aspect naming, exactly. “Captain” is a title, a designation of office, rather than a name. But the mechanisms to support aspect naming might, as you say, be useful for titles.

  51. I have another hypothesis, which may not match all the data but here it is anyway. A person who is well-known in a small community will be known by his or her given name. If that community then grows very large, but the person plays the same role in the much larger community or even becomes the face of that community to yet larger communities, the given name will still be used.

    If on the other hand a person becomes well-known to a larger community suddenly, either by nomination of another well-known figure, a “feat” (such as writing CatB), or because a large community that is the residue of an earlier smaller one suddenly relearns what that smaller community had known, the TLA will be used.

    This seems to work for “Linus”, “Guido”, and “ESR”. I’m not sure about “RMS”, but I don’t know enough to say that example disproves it.

  52. For aspects in G+, it seems that in order to be authentic or even to function at all this can’t be driven by the target of an aspect. That is, it would be improper for ESR to be able flip a switch and then be signified by “ESR” with G+. This could work, however, if each time a user refers to another, the referring user has the option to apply one or more tags to that reference. The visual interface could take notice of these tags after their use reached a certain threshold, and then at some much higher threshold you could use the aspect to refer without even using the original username.

    I’m not sure whether G+ could or should stop users of such functionality from e.g., tagging user “Jess” with aspect “asshole” or similar. (This is similar to the “Santorum” phenomenon.) You could limit tags to initials, but that has i18n problems.

  53. I don’t think this is aspect naming, exactly. “Captain” is a title, a designation of office, rather than a name

    “Mom” is a title, but people use it as if it were a name. Heck, I even saw a commercial where someone said “My name is Dr. $First $Last” the other day.

    Clearly, “Mom”, “Mrs. Jones”, “Cindy Lou Smith” (and various parts in combination), “Cynthia”, “Sniper” (her HS basketball nickname), “Cyborg” (her callsign) and “Ensign Jones” (or either word in isolation) are all different, perhaps overlapping, aspects of “Ensign Cynthia Louise Jones (neé Smith), USN” that I just made up for this hypothetical.

  54. I don’t think this is aspect naming, exactly. “Captain” is a title, a designation of office, rather than a name.

    To pick an acquaintance of mine, “Baroness Scott of Needham Market” is a name, and is how I would address correspondence. “Ros” is also a name, and is how I’d refer to her in conversation.

    ESR is both a name and a title of respect; it’s directly equivalent to Ros’ legal name.

  55. I’m glad I use a different convention for my handle: it’s the first two letters of my first name plus the first two letters of my last name (ERic BOwersox). A lady I knew professionally used this sort of filing system for people, and since mine was short, memorable, and easily pronounceable (usually “UR-boh,” occasionally “AIR-boh”), I adopted it as a handle. This way, at least, no one can confuse me with ESR….and if I used my initials (EJB) as he does, they might confuse me with Enterprise JavaBeans. :-)

    And yes, people call me that in real life…even one of my brothers usually calls me that. Not that I have the reputation to back it up…yet.

  56. >From another angle, Ken is suggesting that triletterization among hackers isn’t just a form of respect, it has connotations of “this person is very old-school” or “this person was among the founders”.

    This rings true.

    Short usernames (first name only & initials only) usually disappear pretty early in the lifetime of any given network (network = network of people around some product/system/network), with the obvious consequence that such usernames fall to early adopters – which are, in hacker networks, generally founders and otherwise respect-worthy folks.

    This model also predicts that there would be frequent triletterizations within small networks that don’t propagate outwards. I can’t think of any good examples, though.

  57. >ESR is both a name and a title of respect; it’s directly equivalent to Ros’ legal name.

    OK, now I get picky. ESR isn’t a title of respect because it can’t be passed to another person; it refers to a person, not an office. Baroness Scott of Needham Market is not a title either, it’s a name using a title as one of its elements.

  58. >If I’m about to throw you a weapon, I’m more likely to ping you than call you Eric or ESR. :)

    Heh. I don’t believe we’ve yet been in a context where you calling me “ESR” would have been appropriate, though it is certainly possible this could occur.

    (For the rest of you, David is one of my sword-geek friends.)

  59. >ESR, peerages are for life now, not hereditary.

    Yes. This is relevant how? “Baroness” is still a title, even if it’s not hereditary.

  60. True, they’re not perfectly comparable. But I was referencing your comment that ESR “can’t be passed to another person”.

  61. I am really tired of three letter acronyms. There are too few alternatives, so even though there may not be much confusion in context, the first thing that springs to mind is not likely to be correct, which brings you to a screeching halt while you think about it – like a confusing mis-spelling of a word.

    For example, I hate rms, meaning Stallman, because every time I see it I first think root-mean-square which I was familiar with long before I ever used a computer. And I used to live in Prince George’s county Maryland, so everything starting with PG brings up the wrong initial response.

  62. Nobody thinks Bill Gates is a hacker.

    In the early days of Microsoft he would have almost certainly qualified for the title. He’s not one anymore. Steve Jobs never had a prayer of qualifying, but that is for the best.

  63. @esr

    >Yes. This is relevant how? “Baroness” is still a title, even if it’s not hereditary.

    And anyway, titles of nobility *are* still hereditary in the UK, it’s just that most (although I believe not all) of the hereditary (as opposed to ‘life’) peers have been excluded from sitting in the House of Lords. All the old titles still exist and are passed down in the old way.

  64. I hear talk about Ruby but no mention of Yukihiro Matsumoto, its creator, who goes by “Matz” online. Similarly there is “Woz” for Steve Wozniak, which suggests a third convention for recognizing tribal elders: shortening their surname to a syllable or two.

    To be honest I don’t think there are discoverable rules you can point to that suggest why people are initialized, first-named, or having their surname worn to a stump, but I’d say that where you got your reputation has a lot to do with it. I think you are more likely to be initialized if you gained your reputation on a timesharing system where your initials were your login name, or if you gained it on a mailing list, Usenet discussion, or blog where your posts were identified with your first, middle, and last names. Having an unusual first name (like Linus or Guido) will weigh the odds more in favor of being called by your first name; the same goes for last names (relative to English speakers) as in Wozniak and Matsumoto above. Despite his ordinary first name, Ken Thompson probably raised it to prominence by using it a lot — didn’t he sign distribution tapes with a note that read “Love, ken”?

    In fora where choosing a kewl, l33t pseudonym is encouraged rather than looked down upon, those are going to predominate as tokens of authority: for example GeoHot (itself a shortening of the first and last names of George Hotz) or Fatal1ty (for pro gamer Johnathan Wendel, whose real name is probably unrecognizable to most gamers but whose nick is emblazoned on video card packaging in lucrative celebrity endorsements). This extends to blogs and fora where you are identified by username rather than your real name: Reginald Braithwaite is well-known as “raganwald” via his blog; Patrick McKenzie is known as “patio11″ via Hacker News.

  65. I’d say it’s many factors, sometimes conflicting, at play here.

    LBT, when said, has two consonants next to each other – ell-bee-tee (l-b); whereas ESR and RMS have nice vowel-consonant-vowel sequences, or vowel-vowel which is still easy to pronounce. I’d say that’s (part of) why some acronyms are easier than others.

    Another thing is the number of syllables – up to three is generally good. Linus Torvalds is 4, Eric Raymond is 4, so they get shortened. Larry Wall has three, so he gets to stay Larry Wall.

    Composing the above two, we get TimBL, seldom referred to as TBL, because “timble” has two syllables, while TBL has three.

    Also consider how often a name is used – a common contributor is likelier to have their name shortened than a sporadic one. I think this may affect Tim O’Reilly (4 syllables) because the hackers don’t quite talk about him often enough.

    And then there’s the first-comer advantage – among two similarly acceptable names (be they competing shortenings, or the real name and a shortening), the first one used is likelier to stick.

  66. On the aspect naming side – who would choose the pseudonym/aspect name? Would a person be required to approve all their aspect names? Or could they choose new ones that nobody uses? Could you say “I don’t wanna be called ESR any more”?

    Or, on the other hand, would users be able to create new aspect names for others? Could I refer to you just as +Eric (if I wanted to coin this shortening), or +Jerk (to point out the obvious problem) in my writings?

    These are not technical issues, and they seem to complicate the matter a lot. A big part of the problem is that aspect naming is a context-dependent thing, and in G+ there’s no visible/useful context other than You and Me, I think, on which they could hang the functionality.

    P.S: heh, I started writing my earlier comment when there were only three comments there. 8-) Sadly, I don’t have the time now to sift through the new comments to see if I’m not repeating somebody…

  67. Or, on the other hand, would users be able to create new aspect names for others? Could I refer to you just as +Eric (if I wanted to coin this shortening), or +Jerk (to point out the obvious problem) in my writings?

    You would be able to create YOUR alias “+Eric” or “+Jerk”, which G+ would render as a link with the long numeric ID for ESR’s account underneath it. Nothing else would make sense, because if you happen to have a relative named “Eric”, you’d have to be able to use that name to mean him. There is no global naming scheme that could possibly make sense for anyone but the most famous people in the world.

  68. The Monster, the problem with ambiguity is there even without aliases. You can easily know two John Smiths and while editing a post, G+ must make it possible for you to say which one you mean.

    But you bring up the word “alias”. Maybe we should be able to make up aliases and have them as part of the search metadata; so if someone searches for esr and enough people use +esr to point to Eric Raymond, Eric would show up in the results. However, that would lead to searches for “miserable failure” leading to GWB, and I don’t see how Google could prevent it in this setting.

  69. Interesting play of heteronyms. I always write out my first name and surname, am called “Kenny” at work (and by one aunt), am typically “Ken,” and use “kencf0618″ as a unique computer handle. Unfortunately Googling “Kenneth Freeman” brings up a particularly vile pedophile. You don’t get to me using that name until you hit my Flickr account, whereas with “kencf0618″ I’m all over the yard from the get go. Interesting study, onomastics.

  70. @Jacek

    I think you misunderstand what I mean by “alias”. I mean it in the sense of a computer command alias; something created for the convenience of a user but not expected to be portable to environments customized for other users.

    If you know two different people named “John Smith”, then you have some way that you tell them apart. Maybe you call one of ‘em “Smitty”, or one’s John and the other’s Johnny. Whatever you do to disambiguate them would be your choice. G+ would then simply map +Smitty to John Smith of Hagerstown, MD, and +JohnSmith to John Smith of Newcastle, England per your user preferences. The idea is to avoid the suzie72461@aol.com problem by letting GLOBAL name collisions occur (Let a million John Smiths bloom!) while having each user resolve those collisions locally within his own circles.

  71. Interestingly, Bjarn Stroustrup uses bs as his e-mail handle. I wander what he is known as in the hacker community?

  72. “Interestingly, Bjarn Stroustrup uses bs as his e-mail handle. I wander what he is known as in the hacker community?”

    He’s Bjarne. Another first-namer. Bjarne is uncommon enough to be instantly recognizable to non-Scandiinavians. Also, as a non-American, Stroustrup probably had no idea of the connotations of choosing to sign himself ‘bs’. Certainly, he is respected enough that nobody worthwhile is going to laugh at that.

  73. These conventions have evolved very gradually over time and are still morphing. Early on, there’d been a kind of pre-Cambrian explosion of nicknaming:

    Some of the very first hackers I met — and well older than me! (she exclaimed vainly) — were known by versions of the three letters that began their alphanumeric (Purdue) usernames — TGInnnnn was “Tiggy,” while one of his peers was, always and forever, “JGM” (a man held in amazingly mixed esteem). The friend who was my passport to that group was nicknamed after both his signature (which trailed off) and the way in which his last name was truncated by the University: “Stockma.”

    Earlier still, professional landline telegraphers and radio operators often used a personal “sine,” chosen for speed and distinctiveness; “YB” was Howard S. Pyle (W7OE), who wrote a number of books and articles. In his day, many hams were known by the “cut” version of their callsign in face-to-face conversation — ’7OE, for example — which is kind of close to the triple-initial tribal elder thing, especially since it was generally applied to the more avid (or is that “rabid?”) and active amateurs.

    In the case of Presidents and other famous figures, it could be a Philips-code type abbreviation; this was a manual data-compression scheme used to improve throughput speeds in telegraphy, especially in newspaper work, and adopted by some reporters as shorthand. (You probably know one: POTUS, Pres. of the U.S.). But that’s a guess.

    (Now if some will explain to me why assassins of political figures almost always get a middle name. Is it because want to be really, really sure not to confuse, say, little Johnny Booth from down the block with the man who shot Lincoln?)

  74. @Russell Nelson
    Hmmm….djb is an interesting one because he is well known for, among other things, djbdns. This makes ‘djb’ almost more of a brand than an honorific name.

    Of course, I find it interesting that you of all people would naturally pick out two of the most controversial people in all of hackerdom. Both are widely known for their um, abrasive personalities, as well as their genius, specifically in the realm of security. Hmmm…I wonder if there is any correlation there… :)

  75. One other famous political triliteration: LBJ.

    Some other triliterations used in print, though not in speech: GWB and BHO, OBL (Osama bin Laden), HHH (Hubert Horatio Humphrey, rarely, mostly in campaign banners and such because it is so striking ), WSC (Winston S. Churchill), WFB (William F. Buckley), GBS (George Bernard Shaw: in The Double Helix James Watson wrote of going to a costume party as “GBS”), HRC (Hillary Rodham Clinton).

    Can’t think of any others.

  76. ESR: >ESR is both a name and a title of respect; it’s directly equivalent to Ros’ legal name.

    ESR: OK, now I get picky. ESR isn’t a title of respect because it can’t be passed to another person; it refers to a person, not an office. Baroness Scott of Needham Market is not a title either, it’s a name using a title as one of its elements.

    I think it’s more an honorific. Like “Doctor” or “Your Honor”. It’s a recognition of your achievements in a formal manner, expressed as a form of address.

    In that way, it is like saying “Aye, Captain.” vs. “Dammit Jim!” You cannot pass it on to another, they must earn it, which is completely appropriate. The unique thing about the hacker honorific would be that it is unique to each individual, its in the FORM of address, not the specific language used in the address.

    This is, I believe not unique to the hacker culture. For instance a similar form is used among fashion models for the elite models, and among musicians as well. If I say “Bethoven” you know instantly who I’m speaking of, no matter how may musicians before or since have been named “Bethoven”.

  77. >Could you say “I don’t wanna be called ESR any more”?

    Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar fantasies have a people called the Hawkbrothers who have “use names”; one of their sayings is “It isn’t what you’re called, it’s what you answer to.”

  78. Yeah, there are lots of cases and arguments for “nyms”, but my question is different.
    How could the notorious bastion of geekdom at Google come up with a policy which is technically unimplementable? I’d bet that almost anyone of the commenters above could invent personas entitled to G+ accounts at the rate of at least several per hour.

    I really don’t think it can last, doubling down or not.

  79. >I think [ESR is] more an honorific. Like “Doctor” or “Your Honor”. It’s a recognition of your achievements in a formal manner, expressed as a form of address.

    Oh, I agree. It’s just not a title, because titles (“Aye aye, Captain!”) are detachable from the individuals who hold them.

  80. titles (“Aye aye, Captain!”) are detachable from the individuals who hold them.

    This transferability characteristic reminds me of one of the things that Microsoft got right about system administration. They have a Best Practices document I read some years back that says it’s a Very Bad Habit for an administrator to assign rights to individual users. Instead, they say to create a group that defines the role/job description (dare I say “title”?) that maps to the bundle of rights in question, and put exactly the one user in that group. It will seem like extra work, but in the long run it will save a lot of grief. (In the *nix world, see the “wheel” group in /etc/sudoers for a similar treatment.)

    When explaining this idea to people having trouble grasping the implications, I offer up this real-world example of a Group of One: POTUS. On 20 Jan 2009, Barack H. Obama II did not suddenly become married to Laura Bush. Instead, he became a member of the group “POTUS”, and George W. Bush was removed from that group. GWB remained Laura’s husband, owner of the Crawford ranch, etc.; all his other rights in the OS are tied to other aspects that remained in place.

    And maybe that’s something else we need to look at with these “aspects”: +POTUS cannot remain Obama’s personal handle once he leaves office. I’m sure there will be similar challenges once G+ starts allowing non-personal accounts. But I won’t be around to find out; they caught up to my fake name and suspended my account, and I can’t imagine my being willing to do what they’ll demand to reinstate it (use my legal name).

  81. Another important issue that English speaking software engineers responsible for “real name” decision in Google+ missed was that in different places of world the structure of name differs (so it is not necessary GivenName-FamilyName), and the part which is used to call person differs (Mr. FamilyName vs Mr GivenName).

    Therefore the solution recommended by W3C is to use Full name (which might be quite long) and What should we call you? (in Google+ case how to refer to person in Circles for example) in profile: W3C > Internationalization > Personal names around the world.

  82. The forms JFK, LBJ, HHH, and so on are headlinese. Nixon never became RMN because the two take up roughly the same amount of space in headline-style fonts. According to “headline counting”, the old rule of thumb used in hot-type systems, M = 2 units, R and N = 1.5 units, x and o and n = 1 unit, i = 0.5 units, leading to 5 units either way. Similarly, GBS is 4.5 units, whereas Shaw is the same but is more ambiguous. Full details at http://www.uiowa.edu/~c019136/136s6online17countingheds.html .

  83. I think I started capitalizing your initials after the web opened the internet to more people than the usenet/unix/hacker crowd. They don’t know what “esr” means, but they can more likely guess that ESR is someone’s initials.

  84. Just tripped over this one. I go back to about 81, and my reading has always been that *people who used their three initials as a login name* got tagged that, and I never thought much about it — except perhaps that my very first account (on an AT&T 3b2 300 at St Pete Junior College) was “jra@” and I’ve been that ever since myself (in conscious imitation thereof)…

    dmr and ken are the best example thereof; I’m relatively sure rms used that as a login as well.

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